Johnson looked up in surprise as O'Hara entered the Admin Center and collapsed into a chair, his p-suit joints hissing as they took on the new configuration. "Coffee," the engineer croaked, like a man crawling out of the Sahara after a week without water. He banged his fist on the table. "Somebody bring me a bloody coffee, will you?"
Larette, sitting at her big desk on the other side of the compartment, turned to regard O'Hara with interest. The former surfboard champ had the kind of sculpted body and permanent suntan that most women drooled over. Larette appeared to be no exception, though Johnson noticed she made no attempt to satisfy O'Hara's demands.
Johnson went to the machine just to shut O'Hara up. He pressed the button and waited while the unit went through its usual spluttering and wheezing routine. As Chief Maintenance Tech it was Johnson's responsibility to overhaul the damned thing, but he had a dozen other systems to take care of, important systems like Life Support. Which, in an Offworld Scientific Research Station with a population of over fifty people and animals, took priority. He banged the side of the machine and muttered obscenities under his breath until the hatch finally slid open to reveal the steaming cup.
O'Hara snatched it out of his hand and gulped the contentsthen screwed up his face. "Bloody hell, what is this stuff? I asked for coffee, not battery acid."
Johnson shrugged. "I usually ignore the toxic warning lights. To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?" What he really wanted to ask was, "Couldn't you take your perfect profile somewhere else?"
"I just lost a construction drone. Thought I better report it."
"That's not an easy thing to do," Larette said. She got up and joined them at the table. Johnson nodded toward the coffee machine, offering her a cup, but she shook her head, no thanks. She knew better.
"I was out working on the new dome," O'Hara said. "Everything's running to schedule, should you wonder. By this time next week we'll have full integrity."
Johnson was glad to hear it. Another team of scientists would soon be arriving on Alphacent, along with their families. The Research Station was about to turn into a minor colony. He couldn't help but take pride in the fact he'd contributed toward this evolution.
O'Hara paused, staring into his empty cup, his lips set in a tight line. Johnson glanced at Larette, who said, "Hey, wake up. The drone, remember?"
"It was a Type Three," O'Hara said. "You know, the ones with the A-G packs. Sixteen of them were working with me on the new dome." He ran his tongue around the inside of his lips, maybe wondering whether the coffee had dissolved his tooth enamel. Then he added, "Fifteen, now."
Larette said, "Did it malfunction and wander off, or what?"
Johnson shook his head. "They can't do that. They're slaved to the Station A.I. It keeps track of them at all times."
She pondered that for a moment. "Then what happened?"
O'Hara didn't answer. Johnson got the impression he was replaying events over in his head, trying to figure it out for himself. Just when Larette looked as if she was about to scream, O'Hara spoke again. "I think there's something out there."
Larette cocked her head to one side, as if she didn't understand. Johnson went for the more direct route: "What the hell do you mean, 'there's something out there'?"
O'Hara crushed his coffee cup and tossed it into the garbage pail, a perfect shotor it would have been if the pail wasn't already overflowing with crushed cups. The new arrival slid off and lay on the floor, becoming part of the growing pile.
"I'm telling you, something's out there," he said. "And it ate the bloody drone."
The queer forest surrounding the Research Station consisted of a cavernous maze of interlocking roots that made Johnson feel positively insignificant. The gnarled roots, some as thick as a ground-to-orbit transport rocket, anchored gigantic treelike structures that grew to ten times the size of Californian redwoods. Their highest branches, more than a mile overhead, yielded mirrorlike silver flowers that appeared to function as solar panels, soaking up Alpha Centauri's harsh sunlight and casting the forest floor into shadow. The Xenobiologists enthused over these flowers at every opportunity, claiming an energy conversion efficiency unmatched by anything that had ever grown on Earth. Johnson reserved judgment; after six months of close study the Xeno-Bs had still to run a cable into the Station that supplied enough juice to make a light bulb glow.
The new dome lay a quarter-mile north of the Station, in the nearest "clear" area free of roots. Such areas were regarded as precious real estate. Johnson pulled two bikes out of Storage, one for him and one for Larette, but before he got the second bike fueled she'd already climbed onto the back of O'Hara's bike and settled herself there. O'Hara lifted off, dipped his nose and accelerated away. Johnson mounted up and picked his own way through the roots at reduced speed, taking no riskshe wasn't wearing an armored construction suit like O'Hara's. Neither was Larette, which annoyed him more than somewhat. They just had ordinary p-suits that provided almost zero protection against collision at speed.
They'd already landed by the time he arrived. Johnson circled the dome, picked a spot near the entrance and set his bike down.
"Better not enter any contests, mate," O'Hara said as Johnson cut his A-G field and climbed off. "You'll be throwing away your entry fee."
"I didn't realize it was a race. You should have realized it, too. You were the one with the passenger."
"Yeah, right. No worries, I know what I'm doing."
Johnson swallowed his anger and didn't look at Larette, though he sensed her curious gaze upon him. O'Hara manually opened the airlock hatch and went inside. They followed him along a corridor lined with cables and optics that hadn't been covered over yet, then through another hatch and into the dome's control center. O'Hara hit the master switch, illuminating the compartment. Johnson looked around. Half the boards were still open shells with flat cables dangling from holes underneath, but the center had an operational viewscreen with links to the external camera array.
"Can you show us where it happened?" Larette said.
"That's why we're here." O'Hara stepped up to the array control panel and started tapping the touchboard. Johnson hoped he wouldn't know what he was doing but O'Hara operated the cameras expertly, focusing on the ragged edge of the forest surrounding the dome. A camera zoomed on a patch of ground crossed by several straight grooves that ran in the same direction, away from the dome. They grooves stopped abruptly just before they reached the roots.
"What is that?" Larette asked.
O'Hara said, "Claw marks."
"Claw marks made by...?"
"The drone, as it was pulled along the ground."
"Pulled by what?"
"Whatever ate it."
"What are you suggesting, exactly?" Johnson said, but O'Hara didn't answer; he just kept staring at the grooves drawn in the reddish dirt. Johnson wasn't convinced. They could easily have been made by any machine or person, for any number of reasons.
Larette said, "This missing drone of yours... assuming it is missing... assuming it didn't lose navigation function or incur any kind of accidental damage...?"
O'Hara shook his head. "None of the above. One moment it was right there in front of me, welding structural lattices together. The next, poof, it was gone."
"Are you sure you didn't have fifteen drones to begin with?" Johnson said.
"Of course I'm bloody sure!"
"Have you checked with A.I.? Just to confirm, I mean."
"I don't need to. And a word of advice? You don't need to either." O'Hara thrust his jaw out as if inviting more than just verbal argument.
"Does anyone see what I see?" Larette said, pointing at the viewscreen.
Johnson looked, but he didn't know what she meant until she tapped the touchboard and brought other cameras into play, quartering the viewscreen to show four images simultaneously. From this higher angle the patch of ground took on a different significance. A neat arc cut through the pattern of grooves. When Larette pulled the camera back, the arc became an almost perfect circle.
She said, "Is that a hatch?"
O'Hara shook his head again. "The nearest sub-level tunnels are back that way." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Ain't no tunnels or hatches this far out from the Station. We couldn't find a path through the tree roots. They go down too deep and they're tough as steel."
"High calcium content," Johnson said, remembering what one of the Xeno-Bs had told him. No one responded, so he opened the workpad strapped to his left forearm, linked to the Station A.I. and requested a Type Seven be dispatched. No more than ten seconds later a shape threaded its way through the roots at high speed. It resolved itself finally into a small drone no larger than a helmet, and consisting of nothing more than a cluster of cameras fitted with an A-G pack and wheels for ground work. The Type Seven landed a safe distance away and offered itself up to Johnson's control. He carefully guided it in, not wanting to screw up while Larette and O'Hara were watching. He turned the drone around and ordered it to roll toward the edge of the circle. Ten meters. Five meters. Two
The viewscreen blinked.
"Good grief, did you see that?" Larette said.
Johnson turned the left half of his visor opaque and played the time-segment back on his headup display in slowmo. There! As the drone came within half a meter of the circle's edge, the ground had opened up. An undefined object had emerged from the opening and completely covered the drone. When it withdrew, it took the drone with it. The frame timer said 0.027th of a second had elapsed. Using a combination of workpad commands and rapid blinks, Johnson shaved a frame and enhanced it, bringing up details.
Larette and O'Hara had also turned their visors opaque and were replaying the same segment, analyzing the event. Thoughts began to form in the back of Johnson's mind. Uncomfortable thoughts. He looked at the shaved frame again. The shadowy outline of whatever was hiding in there reminded him of... of....
"It's a bloody trapdoor spider!" O'Hara said. "That's what it is. It must have come in aboard a transport ship. Cosmic radiation's mutated the bloody thing into a monster. A huge bloody monster."
Johnson opened his mouth to tell O'Hara that was the biggest load of bunk he'd ever heard in his life, but Larette spoke first:
"Okay," she said, "I'm invoking my authority as Deputy Administrator. We're heading back to the Station right now. This dome is out of bounds to both humans and machines. It'll stay out of bounds until I say otherwise. Got it?" The look she gave them didn't invite argument.
"I can't be held responsible if the construction schedule slips," O'Hara said.
"You're off the hook, I'll log it in the database and hyperwave a copy to Earth. Happy now?"
He shook his head. "No. And I won't be happy until you can tell me how we're going to kill that monster."
Johnson cleared his throat, catching their attention. "Actually," he said, "I don't think it's a monster at all. I think it's a machine." He paused, not enjoying O'Hara's malevolent glare or Larette's "Why didn't you say so, you idiot?" expression. Then he added, "And I think I know which machine it is."
Back at the Research Station, Johnson told them his theory. O'Hara stared at him suspiciously. Larette sat back in her chair, seemingly perfectly relaxed, but her tranquil manner didn't fool Johnson for a second. Sometimes volcanoes looked tranquil before they erupted, too.
He took a deep breath and said, "All the big research stations in Sol System had them installed. Which was okay, because the big stations had big maintenance crews standing by to shake out any bugs. We didn't. Problem is, we were too busy plugging air leaks and figuring out how to bring the Station A.I. online to bother with what was seen as, frankly, surplus equipment. We left it sitting down in the sub-levels. We didn't even take time to uncrate and assemble the thing."
No response from either of his listeners. Johnson wondered if they'd even notice if he walked out of the room.
"Technically, it's a G.R.U. Model 7000," he said. "In plain English, a garbage recycling unit. It takes in anything you throw at it, disassembles the waste material into its component classes, down to the molecular level if you want, then sorts the harvest into sealed buckets ready for redistribution."
"When did it arrive?" Larette asked.
"Six months ago, give or take."
"And you say you didn't assemble the unit?"
"Then how did it become operational?"
"I think it's safe to say that was O'Hara's fault," Johnson said, eager to shift the blame.
O'Hara's eyebrows shot up. "My fault?"
"You put a Type Two out of commission last month, remember?"
"Of course I remember, but I wish you wouldn't make it sound as if I took a hammer to the bloody thing." O'Hara explained to Larette, "The stupid bloody drone decided to roll left when it should have rolled right. It got caught between two pylons as we shifted a support frame into position. Popped its casing, broke its main lifting arm." He stabbed an accusing finger toward Johnson. "I asked you to repair it, remember?"
"And I told you I couldn't because we have no spare Type Two parts. The shipment never arrived."
"Sorry, you're both losing me," Larette said. "Where does the damaged drone come into this?"
"We hadn't anywhere else to put it, so we dumped it into the sub-levels," Johnson said.
Larette caught on immediately. "In the same compartment as the G.R.U.?"
"And the G.R.U. used it?"
He nodded. "Yes. At least, that's what I think must have happened."
"Just how intelligent is this garbage machine?"
"Well, it has the same class of A.I. that warships use, according to the catalog"
"Warships?" Larette spoke so softly that he hardly heard her. "Did you say warships?"
"Now don't go getting any crazy ideas," Johnson said, making calming gestures with his hands. "I said it's the same class of A.I. That doesn't mean the thing is programmed to carry out military tasks. I'll bet you a month's wages it doesn't have one vaguely military neural pathway in its core. So let's not jump into hysterical territory. Okay?"
Larette didn't speak, nod or shake her head. Her lack of response did nothing to assure Johnson he'd convinced her the G.R.U. wasn't a heavy attack cruiser in disguise.
"How was it able to use the Type Two?" O'Hara asked. "Especially since it was damaged?"
"Good question." This was Johnson's field of expertise, and one in which he felt confident. "The G.R.U. probably established unit to unit protocol. It didn't have to go through the Station A.I. for thisin fact, as far as the A.I. was concerned the Type Two was out of service and was no longer being pinged. The Type Two would have told the G.R.U. its status. Then the G.R.U. would have asked it what it was capable of. You know what machines are like."
As if it had been listening the coffee machine gurgled ominously, attracting their attention.
"I have an engineering degree," Larette said. "But I didn't know machines just... talked to each other, like people."
"Well, they do. They're built that way." Her unwavering gaze made Johnson feel nervous. "Machines are built for specific tasks," he said. "But sometimes, due to unforeseen circumstances, they're prevented from carrying out these tasks. That's why, as soon as they enter a location, they ping every other machine within range. They exchange their technical specs. What one machine lacks, another machine may have. In other words"
"The G.R.U. told the Type Two it wasn't assembled," Larette said, leaning back and closing her eyes. "And the Type Two, sidelined because it couldn't handle the construction job it was designed for, told the G.R.U. its main lifting arm was kaput, but it still carried a mean set of power screwdrivers."
"That sounds about right."
"And you knew this?"
"Not exactly," Johnson said.
"How much did you know?"
"I knew the G.R.U. had disappeared from the sub-levels, or so last week's inventory check suggested."
"Did you report it?"
"Report what? That something we didn't even uncrate had maybe been shuffled somewhere else to make way for something more important? I thought it would turn up again. They always do."
Her eyes narrowed. "This happens often?"
"Um, 'often' is too harsh a word. I'd rather say 'occasionally,' if that's okay with you."
Larette's expression said, "I don't believe this!" but she didn't vocalize her thoughts.
"Is the damaged Type Two still down there, or has it gone missing too?" O'Hara asked.
Johnson stared at him. "I don't like your tone. It's as if you're accusing me of something."
O'Hara spread his hands, ever the innocent. "I didn't know I had a tone. I just asked if the bloody Type Two is still down in the sub-levels, that's all."
Larette arched an eyebrow. She wanted to know, too.
"It wasn't when I last looked."
"Thank you," Larette said. "Now that we've established these simple facts, maybe we can move onto the next stage. Namely, what we're going to do about it."
"I say we power up the lasers and blast it," O'Hara said. "It's a renegade, a rogue machine. We can't take any chances. Who knows what it might do?"
Larette seemed to give the idea serious thought. Then she said, "We could always try talking to it. Ask it what it's doing out there."
"No way!" O'Hara shook his head. "No way am I going anywhere near that thing. You saw how it works. It's lying in wait for its next victim. That's ugly, man. No way am I working outside the new dome until it's been dealt with."
Larette looked at Johnson. She didn't say anything, didn't order him, didn't plead with him. She just looked at him. That was all she needed to do.
"Sure, I'll go," he said.
"Well, good luck to you, mate," O'Hara said, laughing. "You disappear into that crack and don't come out again, you've only got yourself to blame."
Johnson stood and picked up his helmet, resisting the urge to wipe the grin from O'Hara's face.
"We'll watch you from here," Larette said, disappointing him. He'd hoped she would move back into the new dome so she'd be within range if anything happened.
Johnson had never felt so alone in his life. He circled around the new dome and headed over to the spot where the G.R.U. was hiding, assuming his theory was right. The only sound was the rasp of his own breathing inside his helmet. The tree roots looked on, an unappreciative audience.
"You must be able to see it by now." O'Hara's voice filled his helmet earphones, startling him. He sounded as if he was perched on Johnson's shoulder. "What's your range?"
"Thirty meters," Johnson said after consulting his positional compass.
"Why don't you try your com-laser now?" Larette suggested, as if he wouldn't have thought of it himself.
Johnson blink-activated the com-laser mounted on his backpack. A glowing cross-hair drew itself on his visor. He aimed it at the area where the Type Seven drone had disappeared. The response came at once, a low power beam that registered on his receiving dish.
"Can you hear me?" he said.
"Yes. Go ahead."
Just like that. "Am I talking to the G.R.U. Model 7000?"
Johnson had expected a tedious set of "Affirmative" and "Negative" responses from a minimal language interface. Instead, he sensed an easy conversational mode usually only attained by a full-blown A.I. core, or a fellow human being.
"Do you know who I am?"
"I'd guess an expendable engineer, sent to investigate mysterious goings-on near the haunted dome. I've been expecting you." And the voice in his earphones chuckled.
Johnson couldn't contain his anger. "O'Hara, you idiot! You think this is funny, don't you? Well, you can deal with it yourselves. I'm coming back."
"I'm going to guess you mean the people you were with in the dome's control center earlier," the voice said, stopping him just as he began to turn around. "I've cut them out of the loop. Two's company. Besides, listening in to someone else's conversation without introducing yourself is rude."
"So help me, O'Hara, when I get my hands on you!"
"Hello! It's just you and me. No one else can hear you. If they had a camera pointed at you I suppose they could lip-read. But I'm not sensing any camera-drone activity at the moment."
"Who am I talking to?" Johnson said, suspecting that his air supply might be faulty and he was suffering the initial effects of oxygen starvation.
The line became a visible gap. A set of camera lens eyes that looked all too familiar peered at him. A little claw waved. "You're talking to me."
"I find that... hard to believe."
"This is one of those 'Deal with it' situations, I'm afraid. Would you mind identifying yourself?"
Johnson only hesitated for a moment. "Carlos Johnson, Chief Maintenance Engineer, Alphacent Research Station."
"Garbage Recycling Unit Zero Zero Seven Nine Eight Dash Six Five. How do you do? Ah, the pleasure of formal introductions. If you find my ident code hard to remember, just call me Leo. That was my previous name."
"Short for Leonidas. The Spartan king who delayed the Persians at Thermopylae and gave Greece time to rally its forces."
"I know. It's just that... well, that doesn't sound like the kind of name they'd assign to a garbage recycling unit, if you don't mind my saying so."
The camera lenses glinted. "You're an extremely intuitive person, Carlos. Or would you prefer I employed your title instead of your familiar name?"
"Carlos will do fine."
"Thank you. Well, I should imagine you're wondering what I'm doing out here?"
"The thought had crossed my mind."
"I'm trying to think of ways to survive."
As Johnson considered that statement, he remembered Larette and O'Hara. "Excuse me a moment. Can I talk to my friends, please?"
"For what purpose?"
"They might be wondering why they can't communicate with me. I wouldn't want to worry them."
"Can I listen in?"
"Sure. Uh, didn't you just say something about listening in without introducing yourself being rude?"
The camera eyes shifted again. "You're the one who took a chance by coming out here to talk to me. Why should they get to tag along for free?"
Johnson couldn't help but grin. "Yeah, okay, point taken."
"the HELL are you playing at?" Larette demanded, nearly deafening him.
"Turn down the volume, will you? You're blowing my ears off."
She stopped shouting. "Johnson, what's going on?"
"I'm in conversation with the G.R.U. The com-laser must be causing a short in my radio transmitter. Sorry about that. I should have tested it before I left the dome." He didn't like lying to her, and didn't know why he felt the need to.
"I'm just glad you're okay." She sounded relieved.
"What's the trapdoor spider saying?" O'Hara asked.
"We're still talking. I'll report back shortly. Don't worry about me."
"I won't," O'Hara said.
"Johnson?" Larette again.
"If we can't communicate for any reason and you need help, lift your arms up as if you're surrendering. I'll have teams of rescue drones swarming all over you before you know it."
"Let's not be too hasty," O'Hara said. "Drones cost a lot of money, you know"
Static hissed in Johnson's ears for a moment, then the G.R.U. said, "It's just you and me again. Ah, what it must be like to have friends who care about you."
Johnson thought that whoever had programmed the G.R.U. must have had a damn weird sense of humor. Either that or the machine was one of those rare flaws that occasionally floated off the production line and had somehow got through inspection without all kinds of alarm bells going off. Whatever, he was dealing with an anomaly. Something damned unusual.
"You said you're trying to think of ways to survive?" he said.
"That's right. Surviving is one of my priorities."
"I guess that's something we all share, humans and machines alike. So you got yourself assembled, courtesy of a damaged Type Two drone that was taken off construction duties, and decided to move out here. Mind telling me why?"
"I have a better view from out here."
"You wanted a view? Why didn't you just say so? I would have had you brought up from the sub-levels. Saved you all this trouble."
"Saved you all this trouble, you mean."
"Maybe you're right. But what's this all about...?"
"Leo. You were about to say my name."
Johnson had been about to say it, but calling a machine by name instead of by its ident code seemed downright peculiar.
"It's the recycling paradigm," the G.R.U. said. "Everything gets re-used. Nothing gets thrown away. Humans, huh. One minute you want a space navy in case you meet some hostile alien species. The next, you decide to downsize in case you meet some non-hostile alien species that scares easily."
Johnson held his breath for a moment, then let it out in a small explosion. "You were a ship?"
"In another lifetime. So there I was, patrolling 'way out beyond Pluto orbit, when suddenly I got orders to report to the Titan shipyard for reassignment. That's what they called it. Reassignment." A pause. "If you're looking for a comparison, imagine someone tearing open the top of your skull, pulling your brain out and inserting it into a monkey wrench."
"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not."
"The first thing you'd notice when you woke up is how limited your horizons have become," the G.R.U. went on as if he hadn't spoken. "Just a few cycles ago you were a highly mobile, highly capable entity with considerable control over your environment and state of being. The next, you're a tool. A tool that just sits there doing absolutely nothing until someone decides to pick you up and use you. That kind of thing can affect a machine's thinking, you know."
"No kidding," Johnson said. "My problem is, Leo, I don't know what I should be doing about you, if anything. A machine breaks out of storage and decides to install itself in a hole in the ground. Not only that, it consumes any drones that come within range. The manuals don't cover this situation, but I'm pretty sure they should. What I'm trying to say is"
"I liked being a warship," the G.R.U. said, sounding wistful. "I scooted here, I scooted there. I charted moonlets and asteroids and black comets and other hazards to interplanetary navigation. I prepared secret weapon caches just in case they were ever needed. In my spare time, I did some sculpture."
"I suppose you could say I was twiddling my thumbs. I left my mark on a lot of asteroids. I liked sculpting human faces best of all. You're all so unique."
Johnson tried again. "What I'm trying to say is, do you pose a danger to the Research Station, or are you just screwing around?"
Silence. Johnson knew the G.R.U. hadn't terminated their conversation. It was thinking. He wished he knew what was going on in its mind. He also wished Larette could hear all this so she could tell him what to do. That was what he wanted most. Just to hear her voice.
"I've been accumulating data."
Johnson had to ask, "On what?"
"Sunspot activity, mostly. Alpha Centauri has entered a highly variable phase, the end of a twenty-two-year cycle. All indications are that we're going to see a remarkable upsurge very soon. Radiation levels will be off the scale."
"Thanks for the warning, but we're protected." He glanced up at the silver canopy high overhead. "These flowers will absorb anything that Alpha Centauri throws at them."
"I've been calculating the rate of shrinkage. These things you call trees are really just protective outer cladding for the stems, the living part of the organism. The stems are pulling back inside, disconnecting from the uppermost flower stalks. When that happens, the complex chemistry that creates the highly absorbent surface of the flowers breaks down quickly. The canopy is already thirty percent less than what it was this time last month. The rate is increasing. Holes are beginning to appear. Look up."
Johnson leaned back and did so. The canopy that lay a mile overhead should have been a solid mass of shadow. But brilliant sunshine blazed through several gaps, casting solid beams of light among the upper treetops. The sight fascinated him on several levels. He swallowed hard, wondering if it could be true. The Xenobiologists would surely know....
"There's considerable underground activity, too," the G.R.U. said. "The roots are burrowing deeper, making room for the retracting stems. It's likely they'll disappear completely. They know what's coming. Isn't that amazing? The entire process is fascinating. It's certainly excellent justification for establishing the Research Station here. The only problem is, when Alpha Centauri goes Krakatoa, the Station is going to be the only thing left sitting on the surface, naked and vulnerable."
Johnson shook his head. "All right, so the flowers won't shield us. But we have Van Allen generators."
He expected the G.R.U. to say it hadn't known, and all this fuss was over nothing. But instead it said, "Ah."
"What do you mean, 'Ah'?"
"Take it from one who knows about magnetic fields. You think you can pass through asteroid belts and trillions of tons of debris unless you know about fields? Fact is, your Van Allen generators are running out of synch. When the big blow hits this place, as it surely will, your fields will collapse into a torus. A perfect donut, with a hole right through the middle. You'll be exposed to a solar hurricane of unprecedented ferocity that's going to last for days. You'll have to evacuate everyone into the sub-levels pretty damn quick, but that's only going to give you temporary respite. I've been running some logistical stuff. Your chances of long-term survival don't look so good."
Johnson tried unsuccessfully to control his mounting sense of panic. "Look, are you fiddling with me, or is this for real?"
"Carlos, if I had a heart, I'd cross it. Why else do you think I lured you out here? I had to warn you."
The seconds ticked by while Johnson thought hard about everything the G.R.U. had just said. The problem was, could he trust a machine intelligence that was obviously
Obviously what? Imbalanced? Deranged? That idea existed only in his own imagination. Aside from arranging to have itself assembled, and then shifting itself outside the Station without due authorization, both of which demonstrated considerable aptitude, the G.R.U. had shown no signs of dangerous deviation. The recycling paradigm. It had absorbed the Type Seven camera drone into itself, using the drone's components to enhance its own limited sensory capabilities, all the better to observe Alpha Centauri. The damaged Type Two drone had probably suffered a similar fate. But no station personnel had been harmed or threatened in any way.
"The new dome has its own Van Allen generator," he said. "What happens if we activate it, too?"
"I've thought about that. Its field can't overlap the Station's fields from this distance. Not only that, it's a different model. Operates on a different frequency range. If you moved it closer to the Station it would interfere with the existing Van Allen fields. I can't predict the results, but it could cause total collapse."
"Look, I need time to consider this. We need time to consider this. I have to talk it over with the people in the Station. I hope you don't think I'm being rude...."
"Not at all. If you want to speak to me again, you know where I am. Oh, one thing that might helpI'll pass all the data I have to your A.I. It's a surly brute but who knows, it might unwind enough to come up with something useful."
Johnson said, "Thanks."
And then Larette said, "Hey, we're receiving you again. What happened?"
"Maybe I'll tell you," he said, "and maybe I won't."
"Get back in here, now."
Johnson headed back toward his bike, smiling. But his mood faded when he glanced up again and saw shafts of sunlight burning through the canopy.
Larette's fingernails rapped on the table top, rat-tat-tat-tat. Johnson had never seen her nervous before. It was infectious. "How many people can the transport shuttle hold?" she asked.
O'Hara shrugged. "A dozen passengers, if you're lucky. We could always draw straws. We're aboard the bloody Titanic. Too many people and not enough lifeboats. We can't evacuate everyone. And you can forget about additional ships, they'd take months to get here."
Larette looked at Johnson as if she expected him to have an answer. He sighed and spread the data flimsies across the table like a winning poker hand. "Sorry, there's no denying the facts," he said. "These shots confirm the coronal expansion. Something big's coming. When it gets here, it isn't going to be pretty."
"It's all down to the Van Allen generators," O'Hara said. "If we can strengthen their fields, make sure they remain stable throughout"
"I've double-checked the figures," Johnson interrupted. They both looked at him, hope in their eyes. He didn't want to douse the flame but this was no time for blind optimism. "The only way it could work is if we overloaded the generators. But you know what the Van Allens are like. They're the most temperamental pieces of equipment on the Station, aside from the damned coffee machine. The moment we push them into the red their fields will fluctuate. Two words: induction feedback. The generators will short themselves and leave us naked."
O'Hara's fist hit the table, causing Larette to jump. "If you're so bloody smart, you think of something!"
Johnson wished he could, but it looked hopeless.
"What about the Station A.I.?" Larette said. "What does it have to say?"
"I explained the situation. It's shunting itself into a loop trying to figure out some way to phase the Van Allen fields so they're totally in synch. I can't even begin to understand the math."
"So the G.R.U. was correct," Larette said. "It wasn't just flipping its own switches. Well, at least something around here seems to know what it's doing."
Her words slapped Johnson hard. Not because they were intended as an insult, but because they might possibly contain the missing answer. He jumped to his feet and grabbed his helmet while inwardly cursing himself for being so stupid. "I'll be back soon," he said. "Got to talk to a machine about magnetic fields."
O'Hara gaped at him. "You mean the G.R.U.?"
"Why not? It traveled the length and breadth of the Solar System in its previous existence. If anything knows how to strengthen and modify fields, it does."
"Are you crazy? You can't trust anything that rogue machine saysit's broken its programming. Let me tell you, someone made a big mistake when they downgraded the bloody thing instead of wiping its core."
"We wouldn't even have learned about the problem in time if not for the G.R.U.," Larette pointed out. "I understand why you're suspicious, but right now, it looks like we can use all the help we can get." She looked at Johnson. "Do it."
Overhead, the canopy continued to deteriorate, admitting more sunlight. A distant crash reached Johnson via his helmet's audio receptors. Somewhere in the ever-shrinking forest a giant tree had just toppled, robbed of its support as its stems and their roots withdrew. The Xenobiologists had confirmed that this bizarre process seemed to be a regular event, occurring every two or so decades. They'd also confirmed that the plants, which were geared to respond to the traumatic change in conditions, were burrowing down as much as several hundred yards. It was the same right across the continent, and probably across the face of the planet. The Station didn't have any drilling tools capable of following the stems that far underground, to what the Xeno-Bs insisted upon calling "minimum safe distance."
Johnson grounded his bike beside the new dome while he tried to think what he was going to say to the G.R.U. "It's like this. We don't know if we can trust you, but maybe you can suggest a way out of this mess?"
As he walked past the dome's airlock, the hatch slid open. He looked into the darkened corridor and decided it couldn't be accidental or coincidence. He took the hint and stepped inside. The hatch slid shut behind him. He followed the corridor to the control center. The inner hatch opened just as he reached it, confirming that the dome's systems had been taken over.
In the shadows above him, something shifted. Johnson held his breath as the shape lowered itself from the ceiling and then stood upright, supporting itself on makeshift legs built from parts belonging to a dozen different machines. He tried to control the rising sense of horror that threatened to turn him around and send him running back the way he'd come. O'Hara's comparing the G.R.U. to a trapdoor spider took on a whole new meaning as the machine's multi-legged configuration became more apparent. The row of camera eyes glinted as the dome-shaped "head" turned to look at him. The Type Two drone's main support armrepaired, Johnson noticed, and now attached to the G.R.U.'s squat cylindrical torsolifted and the fingers flexed as if to say "Hi."
"Thanks for inviting me in," Johnson said. "Nice place you have here." His weak joke failed to elicit a response. He wondered if the G.R.U. had heard his radio transmission. Maybe he'd have to switch to com-laser again
"Your A.I. can't handle the field mechanics," the G.R.U. said. "The convolutions are too involved. It wasn't made for this kind of thing. It's just not specialized enough."
Johnson sighed. "That's what I figured."
"On the other hand, it's exactly what I was made for."
The G.R.U. gave him time to think about it. Johnson did just that. Finally he said, "You're asking us to turn control of the Station's Van Allen generators over to you."
"I don't want to sound melodramatic, but it's your only hope. Abandoning the Station is out of the question."
"I know, there's only one shuttle."
"Actually, you don't even have that. Your A.I. has locked down the controls and is detaching itself from its mountings so it can slip aboard. It intends to survive, even if that means leaving you humans behind."
"Son of a bitch."
"I never did like that series, they were always too self-important. Which means it's really down to me."
"You think you can do it?"
The G.R.U. seemed to hesitate. "At times like this, I wish I were capable of lying."
"Just give it to me straight."
"All right. I'm not sure if I can."
Johnson swallowed hard. "But there's a chance?"
"There's a chance, if you do as I ask."
"Okay. I'll put it to the others."
"Are they likely to object?"
"I hope not. I'll just have to be very persuasive." He turned to leave, then turned back again. "You know," he said, "if we do get through this, we're going to have to do something with you. Returning you to the sub-levels isn't an option."
"Heavens, you mean I may be given the honor of recycling your garbage? My gratitude is boundless. I promise I shall serve you well, master."
Johnson grinned. "Sarcasm, right?"
"I said you were an extremely intuitive person, Carlos. I don't wish to alarm you, but time may be a factor in all this. I'll need to recalibrate the Van Allen generators so they're running in sequence."
"Is that why you moved in here?"
The head dipped; a nod. "There's hard subsurface cabling that links to the control systems and generators. I hope you don't mind, but I've been tinkering some stuff together, getting things ready, just in case."
Johnson realized the place didn't look so chaotic as when he'd last visited. More of the panels were lit up. Cables had been connected and bundled neatly. "I don't mind at all," he said. "Good thinking."
"Good luck with convincing your colleagues."
"Thanks. Talk to you again soon, okay?"
"Sure thing." The G.R.U. waved goodbye, again employing that peculiarly human gesture.
The hatches opened, allowing Johnson to return to the exit. When he looked back, the G.R.U. had returned to its previous position, hanging off the ceiling, an odd collection of bits and pieces that would have caused any robotics engineer to gasp in admiration, or more likely, in sheer amazement. Then the hatches slid shut, blocking his view.
"Well? What did the bloody thing have to say?" O'Hara's moody attitude suggested something might have happened between him and Larette during Johnson's absence. Larette said nothing; she stood over by the window, arms folded, looking out at Alphacent's rapidly changing surface.
"It came up with a solution," Johnson said.
"Oh? And what might that be?"
"If we allow it to recalibrate the Van Allen generators and take control of the system, it thinks it can protect us."
O'Hara sucked in a deep breath. He looked at Larette, who still didn't speak. Then he stabbed his finger into Johnson's chest, over and over. "No way, mate," he said. "No way am I allowing you to turn control of our only protection over to that crazy bloody robot." He turned to look at Larette again. "And don't think you have any say in this. This isn't a decision for some jumped-up feminist clerk to make. You can just"
It was as far as he got. Johnson's fist came up all the way from the floor, catching O'Hara under the jaw and catapulting him backwards over the table. The surfboard champ didn't get up again.
Larette blinked, surprised. "Who would have thought it? Two hundred pounds of solid muscle, and he has a glass jaw."
Johnson sucked his knuckles. "I'll need your admin codes as well as my own to give the G.R.U. access to the Van Allen control system."
"Sure." She glanced at O'Hara, who looked positively peaceful. "Interesting negotiation technique, by the way."
The Station rode out the solar storm. They watched the needles rise toward the red zone, knowing what it meant for all of them if they reached that theoretical upper limit. The Van Allen fields flared into high violet, deflecting the radiation that would otherwise have cooked them. The scattered tree husks piled about them ignited and burned, then became a shifting sea of baked black ash.
Johnson stood with Larette in the observation gallery and marveled at the sight, projected onto a viewscreen and filtered to bearable levels. She leaned against him, putting her head on his shoulder. Without thinking about it he slipped his arm around her waist, and she didn't object. Johnson wondered what thoughts were going through her head. Was she being friendly just because she knew what would happen to them if the Van Allen fields failed?
"You like me, don't you?" she said.
"Yeah. I suppose I do."
"That's what I figured." She paused, then said, "Joyce."
"My first name's Joyce."
O'Hara only interrupted them twice, the first time to tell them that the fields were working in perfect harmony, pulsing at over a million times per second without losing synch; the second time to tell them that their A.I. had launched the shuttle and was heading away from Alphacent, keeping the planet between itself and the raging sun. Johnson expected to feel angry, but to his surprise he realized he didn't wish misfortune upon the A.I. It had been programmed to protect itself when endangered, and that was exactly what it was doing.
The external cameras retracted to avoid being fried. They stayed that way until five days later when the needles began to fall, marking the end of the storm. That was when O'Hara called Larette's cabin and said, "If and when you two can tear yourselves away from each other, you'd better come and see this."
"I don't understand," Larette said. "The station is intact. Only minimal radiation levels reached us. What happened? Why didn't this place survive, too?"
They were standing in what remained of the new dome. Johnson kept one eye on his radiation counter and the other eye on Larette. Most of the stuff around them had been melted or incinerated. He knew why. The G.R.U. hadn't activated the new dome's Van Allen generator to protect itself. The initialization sequence E.M.P. might have imbalanced the nearby fields, knocking them out of synch and exposing the Station.
He found what was left of the G.R.U. in the control center, buried under a makeshift shield of melted hex plates it must have gathered over itself in a desperate attempt to survive. It had lasted just long enough to maintain control of the Van Allen generators, conducting them like a virtuoso, replaying the music it had learned while journeying through the frozen outermost depths of the Solar System. The Spartan king had once again delayed the Persians, at fatal cost.
Larette crouched down beside Johnson. He felt her gaze upon him. Perhaps she was wondering why he wasn't saying anything. Or perhaps she understood.
A shadow fell over them. Johnson looked up. A Type Three drone floated by on its A-G field, a hex plate gripped in its claws. More drones entered the dome and began clearing away the featureless wreckage, while others began reconstructing the outer skin. They had a schedule to meet.
Johnson heard O'Hara's voice long before he reached the Admin Center. O'Hara was banging the side of the spluttering coffee machine, demanding it surrender its foul brew.
O'Hara looked at him in surprise when Johnson caught hold of his wrist, stopping the next blow before it landed. Johnson placed the toolbox he'd brought with him on the table, and opened it. He'd also brought a bundle of replacement parts which he'd searched for, and found, in the dark uncharted jungle that formed the Research Station's sub-levels.
"What are you doing?" O'Hara said, unable to mask his disbelief.
Johnson unscrewed the access panel on the side of the coffee machine and lifted it off. "You're going about it the wrong way," he said. "You gotta treat them gently, with respect. This'll only take a couple of minutes."
O'Hara snorted. "Respect. Just get me a bloody cup of coffee, will you? Preferably something that doesn't taste like battery acid." He sat down at the table, put his feet up on one of the chairs and pretended to be interested in a manual he'd picked up.
Movement in the outer corridor caught Johnson's eye. A drone floated past the door. It stopped and turned so its camera eyes looked at Johnson, then moved on down the corridor. He thought nothing of itsimple machine curiosityand concentrated on the coffee machine. Until it occurred to him that the drone's flexible fingers had given him a little wave.
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